Editor’s Note: Cristina Florea is an assistant professor of history at Cornell University whose research, writing and teaching focus on Central and Eastern Europe. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Like previous wars, Russia’s assault on Ukraine is an attack not only on the living but also on the dead, whose traces in the historical record risk being completely erased if evidence of the past – including iconic physical structures, archives and documents are destroyed – whether intentionally or accidentally.
The toll being taken in Ukraine in lost lives and destroyed worlds is unimaginable. The idea that these same people may be losing irreplaceable parts of their history only compounds this unfathomable tragedy.
As a historian, my research and writing rely on previous generations’ efforts to record their present and preserve relics of their past. That any historical records have survived Eastern Europe’s long history of turmoil is nothing short of a miracle. Archives, like people in the region, have been repeatedly displaced and destroyed. Russia’s current war on Ukraine is yet another instance of this long history of invasions and conquests.
Archival destruction in the current war in Ukraine is especially painful to contemplate, given the difficult history these records have already endured. Consider documents pertaining to the Great Famine of 1932-33 (Holodomor), stored in the Ukrainian state archives in Kyiv, which have survived both Stalin’s repressive regime and damage during the Nazi encirclement of the city during the First Battle of Kyiv in 1941. If the city comes into Russian hands, gone will be the only place across the former Soviet Union where researchers could freely access the records of the Soviet special services (KGB).
At risk are also relics of the past such as the splendid Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, founded in the 11th century, at the dawn of the medieval principality of Kievan Rus’, to which both Ukraine and Russia have since traced their origins.
This monument of Byzantine architecture survived the Mongol invasion, Russian revolution and artillery fire and bombing in World War II, among other cataclysms. Artifacts and records that have gone through so much to reach us in the present once again risk vanishing without trace, especially since Ukraine has lacked the resources needed to protect them from destruction through technologies such as the extensive digitization of historical archives.
To destroy churches, artifacts or records is also to inflict new violence upon those who were silenced, abused, done wrong to in the past. Vladimir Putin has already tried his hands at imposing a related form of abuse back home.
Last year, the famous international rights group Memorial, which kept lists of political prisoners including victims of “unproven charges based on fabricated evidence because of their religious affiliation” was unceremoniously closed in Russia. While these records have not been physically destroyed, Putin’s actions amount to a profound effort to erase stories of human experience and, more to the point, suffering.
Like most places in the world, Ukraine has had a complicated, not always heroic history. Generations of people of multiple ethnicities – Jews, Ukrainians, Poles – have lived on the territory of present-day Ukraine, participating in its history as both perpetrators and victims. Poles and Ukrainians disputing claims to the land both groups inhabited slaughtered each other on several occasions.
Millions of Ukrainians, mostly peasants, lost their lives in the Great Famine which followed Stalin’s collectivization campaign in the 1930s. Some Ukrainians made pacts with the devil in World War II: almost 100,000 of them enrolled in the Waffen-SS as volunteers, aiding Nazi Germany in purging the region of Jews.
One of the places that best reflects this complicated history is Babyn Yar, the site of a Holocaust massacre on the outskirts of Kyiv, which earlier this month was badly damaged by a Russian missile that appeared to target a nearby TV tower.
In 1941, over 34,000 Jews (mostly women and children) were shot and buried there by both SS troops and local collaborators. Their murder was subsequently denied by both Nazis and Soviets. It took until 1991 for a Holocaust memorial to be erected on the site although, as Jewish historian Jeffrey Veidlinger writes, different stakeholders have also come “forward to erect their own memorials to other ethnic, religious, political, and demographic groups murdered at Babi Yar,” making the site “as contentious as the war itself.” As Kyiv comes under artillery fire, the bones of the dead in Babyn Yar might end up burning again.
Ukraine is a place where evidence of past crimes, acts of heroism and everyday life takes extraordinary efforts to preserve. In this region, burying the past has always been politically expedient, as has been digging it out and manipulating it as convenient. Both local populations and the governments that ruled them have engaged with the past in complicated ways – and their efforts to hide or reveal elements of the region’s history have left a deep imprint on Ukraine’s cultural landscape and archives.
History, we have been told repeatedly over the past few weeks, will judge Putin harshly for his actions in Ukraine. Those who take comfort in these words, I fear, mistake history for a divine arbiter that is otherwise painfully absent. History alone does not judge, punish, or pardon – not if records of the past are left to perish. Without them, alternative ways of living and ruling will become difficult to imagine and the present will appear like an inevitable culmination of the past. In a world that has no access to its history, nothing will stand in the way of men who feel both omnipotent and immortal.
Efforts to evacuate and preserve cultural heritage and historical artifacts are already underway in Ukraine. In Lviv, local museum workers have built scaffolding around altarpieces in the city’s medieval and Renaissance churches. Curators in Kyiv have barricaded themselves inside basements together with the artworks they rescued from missile strikes. In Ivankiv, one man ran into the local museum to drag artwork out of the flames.
Elsewhere, locals are working around the clock to cover stained glass windows with plywood and aluminum, and to barricade statues with sandbags. These people are making heroic efforts, but they are doing it with limited resources and in an improvised fashion. In Lviv, priceless cultural artifacts have been packed inside cardboards formerly used to transport bananas and locals are wrapping up statues with materials bought from home improvement stores.
Meanwhile, several international organizations (from the European Commission to the Polish Committee for Aid to Museums of Ukraine, to the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab in the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville) have mobilized to support these efforts. More than a thousand international volunteers have formed a Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online group to “identify and archive at-risk sites, digital content, and data in Ukrainian cultural heritage institutions while the country is under attack.”
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These initiatives are reminiscent of World War II campaigns to save European artworks from wartime destruction, such as the famous Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA), also known as “the Monuments Men.” Set up in 1943, the organization tracked down more than 5 million looted cultural items.
Aside from this, there were also lesser-known, grassroots initiatives to record everyday life and document crimes against civilians in World War II Europe. Perhaps the greatest of them was Polish-Jewish historian Emanuel Ringelblum’s effort to document life inside the Warsaw ghetto by collecting diaries and documents, and commissioning other ghetto residents to write about their experiences. These documents were stored inside milk cans and hidden inside cellars all over the Warsaw Ghetto, where they were rediscovered in 1946.
The destruction of written records may not always elicit the same emotional response as the loss of a beautiful medieval church or a statue of Christ dating back to the 11th century. Yet they are no less important traces of a people’s past,
Anyone who has ever worked in an archive can confirm that documents tell powerful stories, not only through text but also through their feel, look, and smell. They remind the historian of both the fragility of human life and of the tremendous power of memory.
This is why it is so crucial that archival collections be evacuated from areas that have come under siege in Ukraine. In many places, above all in western Ukraine, it might not be too late to digitize archival materials. Even in peacetime, however, archivists in Ukraine were under-resourced.
While the battle for their homeland continues, we cannot expect them to save Ukraine’s historical records on their own, without substantial financial support from outside. Their efforts are indeed heroic. But they are, at the end of the day, only human.